Monday, February 6, 2012

Setting The Course

"No man is an island."  So says John Donne in Meditation 17 and experience proves him correct.  We exist in groups.  The most introverted among us still have a select few that we invest in and are deeply connected with.  Donne proposed a universal bond among humans that some have and will continue to debate but, for today, it is enough to say that no one exists entirely alone.  As a result, a tremendous amount of our time and effort is invested in one relationship or another.  The success of facebook, texting, and various other social functions is ample evidence.

As a previous post mentioned, conflict is an inevitable function of groups.  One exception would be the situation addressed by a quote my son shared with me this weekend.  "If everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking."  Maybe we could adjust that to "only one is thinking."  Not all conflict is the emotionally charged variety however.  Several times in a day, a group decides things.  Everything from which restaurant to what is the 15 year plan for this organization is decided by groups of people.  Lots of times, maybe even most times, the decision is made by whoever speaks first and is not violently opposed.  Sometimes this is preceded by a fair amount of deferral.   I have a friend who has proposed opening a restaurant named "I Don't Know, You Pick" because that is almost always the first thing said in response to "Where do you want to eat?"

This is fine for restaurants but what about substantive issues?  Leaders must beware of silence, to be sure.  Ideally we will all share our perspective and a consensus will emerge because we will each think about different aspects of the problem and, as a group, we will merge these various pieces into a greater solution.  If you have spent any time at all in committee or team meetings, you realize that ideal is hard to realize!   As it turns out, the restaurant situation is more revealing than it looks.  Most groups will, to a greater or lesser degree, finally subscribe to one person's idea or vision.  This can work great when the group is blessed with an individual who can and does take the various pieces and build a group solution.  They present their solution based on several pieces of group input and folks wind up saying, "Now why didn't I think of that?" or "Why doesn't it sound like that when I say it?"  This can also go terribly when a dominant person uses the force of their personality to argue away diverging viewpoints and ridicule dissenters into submission.  Of course, it's usually somewhere in the middle. 

What of the case where you have real, persistent disagreement?  Everyone is still "playing nice" but we can't seem to move forward without voting for one and rejecting the other.  Wouldn't it be nice if we could appeal to a wise outsider who was already well-informed on the subject for the right answer?  Christians have exactly that.  We believe, or at least say we believe, in an omniscient God who speaks to us.  Admittedly,  not all the groups you participate in are made up exclusively of Christians but what if you sought God's opinion in those circumstances and supported the opinion He led you to?  What of the groups who are entirely Christians?  Why don't we employ this strategy?  Richard Foster argues for congregation business meetings to be run in this way in Celebration of Discipline and provides one example.

This is not the quick way to do business.  This will be long, requiring time for earnest prayer and hearing from everyone multiple times.  Some already have the voice hammering away, "This isn't practical."  Maybe not by this world's standards but, if we really are preparing for the world to come, this might be a way to practice today.


  1. All true. And might I add to your final paragraph that quick business does not describe how our God does his work. He is patient. We are to wait upon the Lord. "They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength." Sometimes we don't pray about a decision when the answer seems so clear to us. We want to "just do it." In this scenario aren't attempting to carry out OUR plan in OUR time and OUR strength?

    But when we wait on the Lord, we also understand that He will often speak through the voice of those who love Him - our brothers and sisters. As we listen to his voice and the voices of those who have also been listening with us, we can be sure that, having waited, we will move forward with renewed strength. HIS will, in HIS time and HIS strength.

  2. I must say, I totally agree here. Thanks for the great insight! Business and committee meetings often follow a pattern - one that gets next to nothing done, or doesn't reach a fair compromise. The thing that jumped into my mind, though, as I read this was: many of us are guilty of being the silent parties in decision-making, but our favorite thing to do after not speaking up is to discuss with (or complain to) people who already agree with us. I know I've done it. In agriculture, we address issues that originated outside our circle at conferences occupied by other agriculturalists. In church, I've been a part of many a discussion about what we would say to so-and-so or how we would've done it differently, but are we telling people who aren't already on the same side we're on? Bathing our decisions in prayer is definitely and most importantly the first step. The next one is just as difficult sometimes: action.

  3. Great comment Laura! I remember an old band joke that probably could work for lots of groups. How many trumpet players does it take to change a light bulb? 10, one to change it and 9 to stand around and say how they could have done it better.